“Our media,” said President Uhuru Kenyatta in his 2016 State of the Nation address, “is the vanguard of our values as a Nation; it holds a special place in our social and economic life.”
It is hard to match those words with action.
Since the Jubilee administration came to power in 2013, the media has been ill at ease. Jubilee’s top brass' disdain for the media is public knowledge.
The declaration by President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy William Ruto earlier in their term that newspapers were only good for wrapping meat was the first shot in a litany of attempts to bully the Press.
The other shots were fired when the Government put in place several measures that sought to blackmail and consequently muzzle the Press, even though the three top media houses contribute nearly Sh2 billion annually to the Exchequer.
And in 2014, then Information, Communication and Technology Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i ordered all ministries, departments, and parastatals not to place advertisement directly with media houses, instead, they had to do it through a centralised agency; the Government Advertising Agency, which would then decide which media house to use.
During the 2017 electioneering period, Dr Matiang’i’s successor Joe Mucheru was frequently on the phone, brazenly blackmailing the media to bend to his will while threatening to withdraw government advertisement.
Our caution in 2014 was that while it was understandable that a central point would create efficiency, it was open to abuse. Mr Mucheru’s acts are just one of them.
The other abuse is now manifest in the Sh2.5 billion owed to the media for advertising space. These media houses are private investment in which the owners expect a return on their equity. And to stay afloat, some of them have had to send home some of their staff; not just once.
It is heartening that the Director of Public Prosecutions Noordin Haji has picked up the issue and has ordered a probe. We hope that the matter will be settled soon to save the businesses further strain. And really, this was legitimate business.
The irony is that though the reason given for the atrocious move was to save costs, the wastage and inefficiency in Government is bewildering. Year-in-year-out the Auditor General releases reports where billions of taxpayers’ money was spent without proof of expenditure in Government departments, or merely wasted. Government advertising averages Sh1.6 billion across all media houses in a year: a drop in the ocean.
The Kenyan media is fairly mature. Many might mistake the industry’s vibrancy and robustness for abuse of freedom. Quite the opposite.
The Fourth Estate's critical role in buttressing our nascent democracy cannot be gainsaid. We hold up a mirror to society. We never shy away from embarrassing and exposing the bad ways of the often spoilt, privileged ruling class. Through this, we enlighten the citizenry to make wise choices on who governs them because we reckon that we are beholden to public interest.